By Shalena Mathews
On September 15th, 2017, Ruta Sepetys was the guest of honor at the 10th Annual Dinner with an Author event that is hosted by Putnam County Library Friends in Cookeville, Tennessee. The event is a fundraiser for my local library system and is always an amazing time. There’s dinner, music, a silent auction, books sales, updates on the library, and best of all, a talk by a fabulous author.
When I found out Ruta was this year’s author, I had to go. Not only would I not have to travel since Cookeville is my hometown, but Ruta is an amazing speaker and I knew this time would be no different. After dessert was served, Andrea Baston, Putnam County Library Friends Board President, gave Ruta a wonderful introduction, speaking about her life, her career in the music industry, and of course, her books. Then it was time for Ruta’s presentation.
“We can’t choose our hardships, but we can choose how we face our hardships.”
After thanking us all for attending, Ruta spoke of her personal heritage and the history of her family. She said the stories of her family are stories of strength, hardship, and identity. Her Lithuanian father had to flee Lithuania for Germany and survived nine years in a refugee camp before he could move to the United States. The struggle of Ruta’s Lithuanian family and the others that were banished to Siberia during World War II is what inspired her to write her first novel Between Shades of Gray.
Ruta’s mother was the youngest of ten children and grew up in the inner city of Detroit, Michigan. Her mother had to leave high school at one point to care for Ruta’s grandmother, and Ruta’s second novel, Out of the Easy, is her mother’s story.
Learning from her parents’ stories, researching the past, and writing historic fiction taught Ruta that no matter how bad things get, progress is possible.
“You think you know what your book is about, but readers tell you what your book is about.”
Ruta also learned from her readers. She thought she knew what her first book, Between Shades of Gray, was about until she began traveling the world to promote it. In the United States, BSoG is known as a story of courage and survival. But when Ruta got to France, her publisher there told her the story was about identity, like how much a human can bare before they lose who they are.
In Spain, where BSoG is published as an adult novel, the story is seen as being about patriotism and is studied in relation to the Spanish Civil War. In Japan, it is about compassionate courage. And in Italy, it is about love. It was amazing to Ruta that her book could mean so many different things to so many different people.
“What would it be like to be forced to leave everything you’ve known and loved behind?”
Ruta then moved on to talking about her latest novel, Salt to the Sea. The story is based on the largest maritime disaster, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Originally a German cruise ship, the military used it as a transport ship and for Operation Hannibal, an operation to evacuate military personnel and civilians across the Baltic Sea.
When people heard that refugees were going to be evacuated, they were desperate to get on board the ship. The people were from all many places, like Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, and Germany, and had been caught between the German and Soviet Union armies. They saw this ship as a chance at survival. Ruta shared pictures and stories of some of the people who were on the Gustloff when it sank.
The operation took place in January and people had walked miles in the freezing cold to make it to the port in what is now Poland. The ship’s passenger capacity was about 1400 people, and the German military took up about 900 of those spots. Then, in order to fit more refugees on the ship, the ship was completely cleared out of all furniture and even the pool was emptied so the space could be used. By the time the ship set sail, it carried more than 10,000 people.
To avoid being seen by Soviet planes, the ship sailed with its lights off, and due to its over-capacity, took to deeper waters. It was also due to its weight that a Soviet submarine could detect its passage across the sea. The submarine fired three torpedoes at the ship, all hitting their mark, and within an hour, the Gustloff was gone.
Of the over 10,000 passengers, over 9300 died, including 5,000 children, mostly teenagers. Ruta explained that so many children and teens were lost because some families were only allowed to send one person aboard, so a child was chosen and boarded the ship alone. Unfortunately, the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff isn’t well-known, and people often refer to it as the Ghost Ship because so few know about its tragic history.
Ruta traveled to six different countries to do research for Salt to the Sea and decided to tell the story through four fictional points of view: two teen girls and two teen boys. These characters are all of different backgrounds, like the real people on the ship, and tell the story of what happened in a way that was so compelling, the book has become an international best seller and earned a Carnegie Medal.
“When you go searching for story, story comes searching for you.”
Ruta moved on to discussing her writing process. The first thing she does when she decides on a book topic is read all of the non-fiction that is available on that topic. Knowing the facts and history of whatever you will be writing about is paramount, especially when you do the second thing: go to the place(s) it happened. When Ruta traveled to reasearch Salt to the Sea, she met one of the original divers who explored the ship’swreckage, visited and studied the port the Gustloff set sail from, and walked the path the refugees took to reach the port (granted, she did this in spring when the weather was much nicer). She also got to meet someone who dove the wreckage in 2003. They explained that because the Baltic Sea is so clear and cold, everything down there is perfectly preserved.
In addition to visiting places and people, Ruta let others know that this was the story she was working on, and people began sending her things. She received pictures, letters, and items from family members of people who were on the Wilhelm Gustloff, such as a refugee’s eyeglasses and the strap from a survivor’s life vest. She also received items from the ship from other divers, including what may very well be dinner utensils that were used by Adolf Hitler.
“An author has nothing without readers.”
Ruta ended her presentation by talking about the importance of story. During the reception that was held for her by the Putnam County Library Friends, Ruta met people whose families had been on opposite sides of World War II. She said that history can divide us, but reading unites us through story. Story is so powerful because it gives us a way to understand each other. And, because of readers, Ruta is able to share the stories and histories of people who would otherwise be forgotten.
Ruta received a standing ovation from the dinner attendees. I know I learned so much from her presentation and got goosebumps several times as she talked. The work she has done to preserve and share the stories of lost voices is so important, and I know she inspires others to write and share their stories as well.
I am so glad I got to attend the event and if Ruta is coming to a city near you, you should definitely go. Hearing Ruta Sepetys speak about history, life, and story is not something you will regret.